Driving Society Forward.
Eveything Louder Than Everything Else
Glenn Rikowski, London, 7th February 2006
"Everything louder than everything else!" (Meatloaf, track two from the Meatloaf: Bat Out of Hell II - Back Into Hell album, lyrics by Jim Steinman, 1993, Virgin Records).
A few years after I first heard this arresting phrase from Meatloaf in 1993 I began to see its real significance. It seemed to me that the state in contemporary England was doing two things in relation to this howl from Meatloaf. First: attempting to interfere in our lives on an increasing scale. And secondly, and more interestingly, the government was trying to make each state service perform functions for other state-services. Thus, for some purposes schools were being integrated with social services and the police (in theory) under the Education Action Zones launched in 1997-98. Though in practice, as I saw through research experience, this was largely based on hope and wishful thinking on the part of the government. On the ground, things were not working out as planned.
Education was spreading out; into the whole of society, through the Learning Society notion, supported by an Economic & Social Research Council Programme of research. On the other hand, companies were becoming 'learning companies' we were told, with some firms setting up learning centres on their premises. Whilst I lived in Birmingham I saw some of these learning centres. Trade unions were getting involved in delivering learning programmes, too. Everything was merging with and into everything else, it seemed: the breaking down of organizational, institutional and social system boundaries. A kind of social blurring.
Three stories in The Observer of last week (Asthana, 2006; Coren, 2006; and Hinsliff, 2006) point towards the first phenomenon taking hold: the state attempting to take an increasing hold in our everyday and private lives. In their various ways these stories are instructive.
Discipline to go beyond the school gate
In this article Anushka Asthana (2006) points towards one aspect of the Education White Paper of October 2005 that has received little attention. Asthana reports that:
"Teachers in England will be given the right to discipline unruly schoolchildren outside the school gates. Behaviour on buses and trains will also be targeted under government plans to clarify and extend teachers' powers."
Asthana notes that this proposal has been largely welcomed and fits in with proposals flowing from the government's disciplinary taskforce - headed by Sir Alan Steer, who is Head of Seven Kings High School in Redbridge. But the civil liberties aspect has not been addressed, it seems. Why should teachers have any right at all to be able try to dictate how pupils should behave out of school?
It could be argued that homework is an imposition on 'free', leisure time. But if children's behaviour is to be subjected to such regulation then there is no knowing where this principle might be extended to. Of course, for some time a number of companies have attempted to influence workers' lives outside the workplace. Henry Ford first brought this strategy into mainstream modes of managerial control. Should schools have the right to make suggestions to parents about diet, bed times, amount and type of TV watched and so on? Perhaps parents will end up signing contracts, and siblings and others will be encouraged to police it by grassing on the offenders.
However, from the experience of the home-school contracts that were fashionable in the late-1990s perhaps we shouldn't be too worried. I refused to sign one for my youngest son. He was doing enough homework in my view, and he went on to do well at Little Ilford School - where he was very happy, without the force of contract. Many others of my friends did not sign these contracts either. So maybe the government will have problems enforcing school rules beyond the school gate, too.
Looking After Tiddles
In another article in the same issue of The Observer Victoria Coren (2006) alerts us to the fact that:
"The government is to publish an instruction manual which tells people how to care for their pets, including an 18-page document on cats. I'm trying to imagine the sort of person who is not capable of looking after a cat, but is capable of reading 18 pages."
So, war in Iraq, crisis in education (with the White Paper), faltering economy, rising debt levels and so on - yet the government finds the time and money to advise us how to look after Tiddles! As Coren notes:
"Some say that New Labour is creating a nanny state, interfering where it shouldn't, giving us information we don't need, treating us like idiots. But perhaps we should defer to these wise politicians . Maybe we are idiots. I certainly find it hard to get through a whole day without cocking something up."
The sarcasm goes down well. On the other hand, if the government really has such a low opinion of us then for how much longer will it trust us to vote in a 'sensible' manner? But then there are citizenship classes in schools, so perhaps they have that angle covered.
I Smoke, therefore We Choke
The third story is bizarre (Hinsliff, 2006). Apparently, when nurses or other health workers visit our homes we will not be able to light up a cigarette if the Royal College of Nursing has its way. As it is keen on banning smoking in pubs the government should have no problem supporting and legislating for this.
However, I think there is a bit of a difference between this and smoking in public places. Of course, there is the argument that health workers need protecting form cigarette smoke. I can see that point, and appreciate it as a non-smoker myself.
Yet workers from other services put themselves in much more danger than going into smokey rooms. Should the government sign a contract assuring soldiers that they won't get killed in action, for example? Getting killed, which may become part of the job, is a tad worse than being in a smokey room.
I guess one argument is that nurses could say that they are trying to help people by going into their smoking homes, whereas it could be argued that soldiers are not so clearly 'helping' those they deal with, and may be oppressing certain groups of people and making things clear for international capital to benefit from the situation. Thus: health workers deserve protection to an extent that soldiers do not. What about lorry drivers or sales people who drive many thousands of miles a year? Should they be stopped from doing so? Road deaths are disturbingly high. Yet stopping driving for business purposes would hit capital hard.
There is the ‘thin end of the wedge’ argument, of course. Stopping us upsetting people who call unwanted at our doors (Jehovah's Witnesses, for example), or being drunk in our own homes when children (either our own or someone else's) are present, might emerge as areas ripe for legislation. We already have ASBOS, but things could go much further, resulting in ITHTV (In-the-House TV).
I think the interesting point is why this intensification of surveillance and behaviour-control is occurring. Of course, we have more technology now. But that in itself is not the answer, and anyhow leads to a crass technological determinism. The Inquisition did not have CCTV or bugging devices.
Rather, I think it is something to do with the way that labour-power is being socially re-produced (as opposed to socially produced in education and training institutions). It has something to do with the quality of labour-power, I feel. To trace the connections will be left for another day.
Asthana, A. (2006) Discipline to go beyond school gate, The Observer, 5th February, p.12.
Coren, V. (2006) Remember, never put Tiddles in the washing machine, The Observer, 5th February, p.42.
Hinsliff, G. (2006) Smokers face ban on lighting up at home, The Observer, 5th February, p.1.
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